"I like this map. Don't mess it up, I'll be wanting it back."
Published in 1993, Lois Lowry's book The Giver was a revolutionary if slim tale of a dystopian future where the inhabitants of a futuristic society lived in relative peace due to the removal of emotion from their lives. In 2014, every hack writer imaginable is creating dystopian future young adult books, so what once seemed like a novel idea feels like a Johnny come lately variation on a theme teens have been spoon fed for years. Nevertheless, these movies are a license to print money (for the most part), so of course now there's a movie version of The Giver, whether we wanted one or not. Could it buck the trend and actually be worth a damn, or would it succumb to the very notion of sameness which the book condemns at length? Read on to find out...
Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) lives in a community where everything seems perfect. There is no death, no pain, no emotion, and everyone's destiny is decided by a council of elders headed by the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep). When Jonas turns 18, he and his friends Fiona (Odeya Rush) and Asher (Cameron Monaghan) are given their roles in adult society. Jonas is selected to be the new Receiver of Memories, a position currently held by a wily old coot called The Giver (Jeff Bridges). His destiny is to be the one person in the society to carry the memories of all of human existence so that when the elders reach an impasse or need help making a decision, they can consult with him for guidance.
It isn't long before Jonas begins to see his black and white world in color, and begins to slowly absorb emotions. There is a horrible truth about the society, however, that The Giver tries to keep secret from Jonas, but when it is revealed to him, Jonas decides that it is time to act. No longer content to let his friends and family be guided by an emotionless existence, Jonas makes a decision to try and free the people of his community from the bonds of oppression.
Admission time. I haven't read The Giver. My 8-year old daughter Clementine briefed me on all the pertinent information beforehand, but I just couldn't bring myself to read the book, hoping to let the movie introduce me to the world, and perhaps entice me to read the book afterwards. This is not a review of the book, so please don't accuse me of not knowing something that may have been fleshed out on the page. Also, at 35, I'm hardly the target audience for this film, which is another thing to bear in mind as you read my thoughts on it. I think that there are a lot of interesting ideas at play in The Giver, but none of them are given the time or space to be explored. It feels not unlike the Cliffs Notes version of the book, throwing ideas at you without giving you time to absorb them. Hell, at 95 minutes, there's not really time to absorb anything. The film is well-paced, but it's like saying you've watched an entire season's worth of a television series when in actuality you've only watched the "Previously on..." recaps that precede every episode.
The concept is interesting, but not explored in any meaningful way, and the film is well made but not very interesting. It's an odd dichotomy because it works fairly well as entertainment, but fails miserably as a parable exploring the ramifications of utopia. It also fails as art because it has a horrible digital sheen to it that just reeks of artificiality, and not in an intentional way as a commentary on the falseness of this perfect society, but rather as a film so tampered with in post-production, it feels and looks not unlike a student film shot with an HD camera. The word that kept running through my head throughout the entirety of the film was lame. It was just a lame movie, preaching a gospel of humanity while demonstrating a value system more in line with being a homogenized product, tailor made to reach as wide an audience as possible while failing to connect with any audience in a meaningful way.
It was also a hopelessly convoluted film, one of those worlds where everything has a label that's six words long when two would suffice. Needlessly wordy terms like "Food Delivery People," "House of the Old," and "The Ceremony of Release" are bandied about as some sort of statement on human institutions, but yet again, nothing interesting is done with the concept so it feels like unnecessary fan service. Also, since this is a movie aimed at teens, that means they've got to up the ages a bit, so Jonas can't be twelve like he was in the book because god forbid pre-teens have any sort of decent role models. Instead he's got to be a hunk that all the teenage girls and their creepy moms can go gaga over. It's just further proof that movies are made by committee, and no longer the work of craftsmen and women that care about story and character above all else.
Jeff Bridges is perfectly fine in the title role, though his choice to deliver all of his lines like a stroke victim was horribly distracting. Meryl Streep also does good work, though even she's not immune to this recent trend of taking a respected actress and slapping a goofy wig on them so we know that this is science fiction (for other examples of this see Glenn Close in Guardians of the Galaxy and Julianne Moore in the upcoming Hunger Games movies). The teen actors don't fare as well, falling victim to their robotic original nature and overcompensating for it when they discover their emotions. I would also be remiss if I didn't mention Katie Holmes as Jonas' mother. Holmes' time away from acting did little to help her grow in any way, and she still feels like the lovesick teen she played fifteen years ago on Dawson's Creek.
The Giver isn't a bad movie, it's just a horribly lame one. It seems to exist primarily for fans of the book, who are also the most likely to up in arms over the artistic license taken by the filmmakers, particularly in the action packed third act. It's a moderately well directed film with a garbage script and some decent performances, but there's really no reason for it to exist, which is one of the worst sins a film can commit. I'll still read the book because I think that there's value in its message, but I would hope that kids the world over will choose to do the same because, frankly, they deserve better, more edifying entertainment than this film provides them with.
GO Rating: 2/5
[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]